The world of seeds can be a cornucopia of information, images and wild descriptions, almost all with promising results. Unfortunately, for most novice gardeners, it can be very misleading and frustrating. How can you tell if a seed company is good or not? Simple, if you can call them and have them provide you with where their seed crops have been grown. Most small seed houses would be more than happy to provide such information, as it proves that the consumer is going the extra mile to ensure where their seed source truly comes from. You will be surprised to learn that not many seed companies grow their own seed, which leaves the consumer to trust each company for providing seed that has vigor, traits and characteristics signature to each seed.
Today, you can find prices for a packet of seed, start at a modest 99 cents and reach upwards of $8.00. So what is the difference in that large gap? Most seed, sold economically via big box retailers is usually grown in Asia. Which means, it is already adapted to a region, soil type and water source, that is completely different from what you have at home. Their organic standards may be something to question, as well as their labor practices and environmental impact, among other things. Despite federal germination standards, inexpensive seed has lower germination. Although this may or may not be due to the quality, it often has to do with how the seeds are stored and transported, before it makes its way into a garden. Seeds are living breathing embryos and conditions that are too hot can inevitably kill the seed before it has even had a chance to germinate. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was full of regional seed houses covering the country from coast to coast. In the 80’s there was a huge consolidation of the seed industry when large pharmaceutical and big ag companies bought out many of these family owned businesses. This not only reduced the available genetic stock to gardeners and farmers, but began to tip the scales heavily, in a direction that did not favor biodiversity, preserving genetic stock, seed saving or family farms. This has caused a dichotomy in the world of seeds and available food varieties, but with new seed houses sprouting up again, things are changing and rare and unusual varieties are becoming the vegetables and fruits of choice. Most importantly, consumers are becoming more aware of what to look for in their food, what questions to ask their farmers and now, how to choose from a reputable seed company.
Not all seed is created equal. A seed may have the same variety name, as seed from another company, but the quality in its traits may be vastly different. Just imagine the difference in how a small farmer vs. a large farmer will have the ability to pay attention to his fields and truly choose crops that are only of the highest quality. The purity of a seed variety is only as clean as the attention paid to that crop. More awareness among gardeners and consumers, alike, are realizing the importance of supporting small family farms and family owned businesses, which the very back bone of what this country was created on.
Seeds naturally adapt to where they are being grown, the more they are planted in the same place the more resilient they become to pests, disease and inclement weather. Seeds, sold from a reputable seed house can offer seeds that were probably grown in conditions where plants are rouged and seed is never harvested from diseased or weak plants. This practice in turns builds strength and purity in a genetic line, assuring vigor in future generations. Choosing seed that has been grown in your local area or in similar climate will assure that the seeds you plant will naturally be more acclimated to your climate and will thrive with your love and attention. This inherently builds regional resilience in the food supply of an area.
It wasn’t too long ago that most gardeners and farmers saved the seed from their fields, but with the on-slot of modern agriculture, that ancient practice began to fall away in favor of hybrids and petroleum-based pesticides and insecticides. The chain was broken, but only temporarily. There is a resurgence in returning to these practices, these ways that have been tried and true for thousands of generations and they are reminding us of how things were done. In such a way that is in reverence to the plants and the earth, where a relationship of reciprocity is developed and trusted. One of our main principles, as a small family owned seed company, is for more and more farmers and gardeners to begin to tap back into the beautiful cycle of life, known as seed saving. We believe seeds are not meant to be stored, we believe the most vital seed vault is in your very garden. The living embodiment of life and death, the place where we find ourselves and learn about the nuances of life.
There is a strong opposition, happening globally, to reject what is happening in modern ag and the truth is that growing a garden may be one of the most radical acts anyone can do. It directs the energy into what works, locally grown food sourced from your backyard. For those without a yard, supporting local farmers via CSA’s and farmers markets can be as rewarding and powerful. Starting a garden with pure seed is essential in growing a healthy vibrant garden! When folks buy seed from us, we see it as though they have joined our growing family. Where they will received the support they need to assure their plants thrive in the ways that they are meant to!
Written by: Kirsten Hudson for Organic Authority
Handed down through generations, heirloom seeds offer a taste of the past. Often described as “open pollinated” seeds that have a long history, heirloom seeds can make for a diverse and downright gorgeous, organic garden. Like a family keepsake, these seeds offer something precious. Once planted, they’ll bloom into a one-of-a-kind fruit, vegetable, herb or flower that hasn’t been tainted by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or pesticides.
Modern hybrids, which are created by crossing two selected varieties, often produce infertile plants. But heirlooms will yield the same plant year after year, which means you can always save the seeds for next year’s crop. Heirlooms also offer a connection with history. Essentially, you’ll be eating the same plump tomatoes that your ancestors enjoyed.
So, what else makes these vintage seeds inherently superior?
Many hybrid fruits and vegetables have been bred to produce more crop, or to resist certain diseases and insects. Unfortunately, these “features” often sacrifice taste in the process.
Plants from heirloom seeds weren’t designed to be carted across the country or hoarded in cold storage for weeks, like many commercially grown fruits and vegetables. Instead, heirlooms were carefully selected for their flavor. After all, who wants to go out to their backyard garden and pick a bunch of carrots that taste like cardboard?
And once you’ve tasted a juicy heirloom tomato, it’s unlikely you’ll ever think the same about a supermarket tomato again.
With heirlooms, taste and nutrition go together. You can’t get much fresher than just picked-off-the-vine or pulled-from-the-dirt fruits and veggies—and that means maximum nutrition.
Hybrids, however, have been bred for certain traits—such as producing higher yields—that sacrifice nutritional content in the process. The traits that make carrots, potatoes and other produce uniform in size and faster growing can also mean a lower quality food.
Heirloom fruits and veggies come in an all-out medley of kooky shapes, colors and textures. From deep red carrots to wonky-shaped tomatoes to bright pink bananas, you just can’t get the same fun variety from hybrid fruits and vegetables.
By choosing to plant heirloom seeds, you’re participating in a mission to diversify our food supply and preserve cultural history. As commercial growers increasingly opt to only plant a small variety of species, we’re losing genetic diversity in our seeds, and therefore our food. This can potentially compromise the nutritional value of our food, lead to issues with soil in farming and potential food blights. Couple that with the increasing GMOs introduced into our produce and it’s a potential recipe for disaster… convinced yet?
Several organizations offer GMO- and pesticide-free heirloom seeds. Browse their catalogs and get excited for this year’s garden!
Follow Kirsten on Twitter @kirsten_hudson
Brigid Gaffikin as written for The San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Paul Chinn / The Chronicle
Matthew Hoffman and Astrid Lindo, owners of the Living Seed Co., grow several varieties of produce and plants in their garden in Nicasio.
The couple have embraced the educational potential in the Internet, too. They have a lively Twitter feed, a blog and a Facebook page as well as a YouTube channel with instructional videos on seed-saving techniques.
So you got your seeds in the mail, you’re so excited … but not quite sure where to start? Still pondering what seeds to buy?Wondering what the difference between hybrid and heirlooms?Well first think of the space you are working with and plan accordingly. Since you are ready to plant, hopefully your soil has been amended properly with organic matter or you are starting your garden with an organic soil mix (we would recommend anything that is OMRI certified). Remember, healthy soil = healthy plants, everything begins in the soil. If you have not had your soil tested and are not sure what may be in your soil, we recommend raised beds and/or containers. More info on container gardens coming soon, so stay tuned to my next post Following the Sun – Container Gardening 101.
Some of your varieties will grow horizontally, think squash, while others grow vertically, think peas. Taking this into consideration is key to a successful garden. I would recommend finding an unused journal or notebook that you can designate as your garden journal. This is key to help you remember where you planted things in past seasons. To keep your soil healthy it is important to rotate your crops, if you are planting heavy feeders. Rotating can also prevent diseases from being transferred from one plant to another. Our seed packets are a wealth of information and will inform you if varieties are heavy feeders or not.
Now its time to plant! If you are direct seeding, planting in the soil, you will want to make sure there is ample space between everything (each variety needs an allotted amount of space). Don’t be too paranoid and use a ruler in the garden; gardening is more organic than that, no pun intended. If you over-seed, you can eat your mistakes, but crowding your vegetables can also compromise their nutrient intake and can ultimately stunt your crops. There is a fine balance so just have fun! There are some seeds that can be broadcasted, instead of being planted individually. As those seedlings start coming up and growing their first “seed leaves,” start to rogue (pluck out) the weaker ones. As the leaves of the seedlings begin to start touching, rogue those out as well, over-crowding is a disadvantage when the roots and the growth of the plant become compromised.
Make sure that you have followed the directions on each seed packet, about how deep each variety should be planted. Each seed packet is choke-full of great info that will help guide you to yielding a great harvest!
After all your seeds are tucked away in the earth, remember to sprinkle them generously with water. This is what will awaken your seeds, this is where magic happens! The soil must continue to stay moist for germination to occur, this means watering every day. Should the soil dry up, you may risk having lost those seeds. Remember you are nurturing this tiny seedling to emerge into the world, it needs your love and care … and even your song, so don’t be shy! If you are starting some of your seeds indoors, don’t forget to harden-off your seeds before planting them in the soil or moving them outside, that means exposing your seedlings to colder air little by little. Some folks use a cold frame, which is also great solution.
Continue to nurture your plants until the completion of your harvest. Plan accordingly if you plan on saving your seeds. You may want to grow extra plants, so you can enjoy some of the harvest and save the seeds. Use your Basic Seed Saving book that we provided for you for the best information on how to properly save your seeds.
Storing your Seeds
Remember seeds, are living embryos, they should not be left in a hot place, ie: your car or a hot garage. As long as the seeds are being stored in a cool and dry place, they will be fine. We recommend keeping them stored in the Mylar envelop the come in.
Try to keep them out of direct sun and moisture when you are in the garden planting. If you choose to store them in the refrigerator, they can last from 4 – 10 years (depending on each seed’s viability).
If you do choose to use the fridge as your seed storage facility, make sure that the zip lock part of the envelope is sealed. When you do use the seeds, just let the Mylar bag sit out at room temperature until for a couple of hours, to let the seeds get to room temperature, to avoid moisture condensation forming in the seeds inside.
Organic, Rare and Heirloom Seed Collections
The Living Seed Company is an heirloom seed company dedicated to supporting families, friends and communities growing healthy food and saving their seeds.
To take some of the guess-work out of gardening we have developed collections of organic heirloom vegetable and herb seeds, suited to your region and growing needs.
All of our seeds are open pollinated, non-GMO, untreated, organic or grown on small natural farms and were selected for their versatility in the culinary arts.
The Founders Collection Our original widely adapted collection suited for most climates
Northern Collection Our long season collection, suited for shorter climates
Southern Collection Our short season collection is suited for longer climates
Urban /Small Space Collection This mini collection is perfectly suited for Urban settings or small gardens and even container gardens
Salsa Collection Our salsa collection is suited for all the fresh salsa lovers out there!
Seed saving and seed knowledge became an integral and sacred part of ancient and modern civilizations. A ritual that was naturally passed on from generation to generation, from neighbor to neighbor. Seeds became such an innate and valued part of civilization that they were used as a form of currency throughout the world. Seeds were considered a fundamental part of every day life.
For 12,000 thousands years, our ancestors labored over cultivating wild varieties, to arrive at varieties with the perfect texture, taste, vigor and resistance, all while adapting them to their location and climate. This genetic diversity was characterized by countries, regions and towns – which with its own characteristic and flavor. There was a time when we marveled at the rich distinction between communities and cultures for their seed stock & food varieties.
Many culinary distinctions are still seen throughout our country and throughout the world. It is these flavors and these foods that give a place its heritage, its culture and a palpable expression of a place. It is the biodiversity of a region reflected in form that we can savor.
Up until very recent history, we had approximately 7, 000 different species of plants, raised as food crops. Even in North America alone, Native Americans used an astounding 3,000 – 5,000 food plants. Since 1903, we have lost 96% of the commercial vegetable varieties, a loss that is being experienced throughout the world at every dinner table. This change in recent history has brought about a homogenization of our global diet, creating a one size fits all model that is suppressing cultures throughout the globe. Today 15 plant and 8 animal species are now relied upon for about 90% of all human food.
Disease or climate change can decimate one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct.
Seeds are the storehouse for the history and evolution of man-kind. Seeds are the first and last link to the food chain. It is in the seed that life resides. Seeds are a miracle that can self-replicate hundred of times, each time becoming stronger, more resilient and adapted to a local region. Seeds are the natural expression of life – abundant and free and they are the ultimate expression of the development of humanity and civilization. Seeds were carried over borders, on horses and boats, sown in seams or stashed in pockets. Plants and seeds have used animals and humans for the advancement of their own specie and the dissemination of its own genes.
Throughout history, humans have been selecting the strongest, diverse, best tasting and most desirable plants and saving their seeds for propagation for future generations. The genetic pool evolved with the careful selecting and saving of seeds, thus began the relationship between farmers and the magic of the seed. Farmers realized, that by saving seeds from the most vigorous plants, they would be conserving and selecting the genetic diversity of the strongest plants, naturally passing that DNA to their offspring, resulting in stronger yields and tastier crops.
Over time, farmers began to breed and propagate varieties that were specific to their heritage and region, writing their history through food and sharing it with their seeds. These seeds began to adapt to their particular regions, soils, weather and even to the farmers themselves. The brilliance of the seed is demonstrated in the act of precise adaptability to its environs while building a genetic bank that is unique and site specific. Year after year, the vigor of these plants continues to strengthen, creating prized seeds that begin to tell a story of themselves.
Each seed variety carries a story, a story of dedication, love and care. These stories are usually associated with the seeds and passed on, for generations where they begin to be referred to as heirloom seeds – seeds with a lineage, seeds with a story.
Saved seeds were traded among neighbors and communities, thus preserving genetic and biodiversity of a region. But as elders passed away, these heirloom varieties were being lost or forgotten. There has been an erosion in the diversity of the foods we eat and in the tradition of specialty varieties has been declining while heirloom crops are getting lost in a mire of corporate hybrids. Thousands of native and heirloom varieties have disappeared and continue to do so. We must celebrate the cultural significance of endangered plant species and preserve them.
We have seen Indigenous displacement and the need to retain seeds as the cultural value and as the mandala of a culture. Honoring a time-old tradition that involves self sustenance and food and seed sovereignty. It is said that the best hope for securing food’s future may depend on our ability to preserve the locally cultivated foods of the past.
|By Robin Carpenter
Originally in print for Edible Marin and Wine Country Magazine
These are the original monies of the earth, In which invested as spark in fire, They will produce a green wealth toppling tall…
—Opening lines from the poem “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed” by Howard Nemerov
“Our seed supply is of much greater importance than Wall Street or the irresponsible behavior of those running the banking industry and this country. Forget money. We must save our seed supply!”
—Eric Herm, Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth (Dreamriver Press, 2010)
Harsh realities face us regarding our food sources and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as I’ve covered in Parts I and II of this series. One of these is that 10 companies control over two-thirds of global seed sales. Just three—Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta—own a combined total of close to 50% and they’re continuing to buy up smaller seed companies at a rapid pace. Additionally, not only are companies like these patenting the genes they discover and the organisms they create, they’re also seeking ownership over indigenous and heritage seeds. This creates a corporate and governmental elite that could result in genetic and food supply control over our entire planet.
In the face of grim predictions and seemingly irreversible mistakes on the part of science, government and corporate interests, a tiny talisman uplifts me. A repurposed pimento jar with a spoonful of mustard seeds from my grandmother. Mammaw’s handwriting is slowly fading from the taped piece of paper on the jar stating, “Mustard seeds/Robin.” Handed to me as I was leaving the Gulf Coast for my new home in California I asked, “For faith?” Mammaw smiled and said, “For remembering.”
Those miniscule round seeds are a reminder of her stories and lessons shared as we gardened side by side. Living in a deeply Christian area that often confused me, my religious questions to Mammaw were invariably answered with, “God is in the plants, the soil, the seed, the water and in the air we breathe…” followed by a story. I preferred climbing trees and fishing to gardening, but Mammaw’s stories kept me wrist-deep in soil enough to understand that, if God had a covenant with us, it was through seeds.
My favorite story was of how okra came to America. A young West African boy was the apprentice to the village shaman. Sleeping in the shaman’s hut, he was awakened on a moonless night by the sound of slave traders raiding his village.
Knowing they would soon seize him, he grabbed fresh pods of okra, split them open and rubbed the slime and seeds deep into his scalp. He knew the cherished plant’s seeds would be safely hidden in his hair and if he survived he would have saved a treasure for his people.
For at least 10,000 years, humans have practiced saving and passing seeds from generation to generation. Seeds and the knowledge of seeds were crucial to the survival of ancient cultures and they remain so today. Seeds were once widely used as a form of currency throughout the world. In our time, this gift to humanity is being claimed as corporate property. And yet, there are many passionate activists, farmers, plant breeders and citizen gardeners working to preserve and reclaim our heritage. There are also scientists and plant breeders working to find ways to protect many of our crops from GMO contamination. We must have faith, perhaps only the size of a mustard seed, and remember that nature will be on the side of those who honor her power and our sacred covenants.
Locally, two people keeping the faith and spreading the good word are Matt Hoffman and Astrid Lindo, owners of The Living Seed Company. Their combined story began when Matt Hoffman, former co-creator with Dr. Jane Goodall of the Giant Peace Dove puppet movement, stepped outside of his Minnesota bakery one winter morning. He saw a woman emerge from a dense snow flurry and realized it was environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill. Hill was speaking in town that evening and in their brief conversation she suggested that Matt come to California to visit some fellow giant puppeteers living at Solstice Grove in Nicasio. Not long after Matt’s arrival at Solstice Grove, Astrid, a certified Green Building designer from Southern California, also arrived to study and deepen her connection to nature. Love blossomed and marriage plans quickly followed.
Discussing their future, they agreed to start a seed company that would promote the power of people growing food together and learning to save and share their own seeds. As a first step, Matt attended “seed school” in Arizona with Bill McDorman, author of Basic Seed Saving (Higher Ground, 1994). Bill graciously helped Matt and Astrid start The Living Seed Company. The company provides seed collections that are non-GMO, heirloom, highly productive and intended to create a diversified garden to meet the food needs of a family. Their services include instructions on saving your seeds after your first growing season.
Matt and Astrid are frequently asked to define the designations of “heirloom” and “hybrid.” “Heirloom” traditionally means the seed variety was bred using a single type of plant chosen for its desirable traits and the seeds were then passed down from generation to generation. A “hybrid” is created when compatible, but different, types of plants are crossbred to create progeny with the desirable characteristics of both of the “parents.” If you save the seeds of the “offspring” of a hybrid, the plant those seeds produce might be one with only the characteristics of one of the “grandparent” plants and not necessarily the hybrid “parent.” Some heirloom plants may have begun as hybrids, but over many generations they were repeatedly selected and grown and their seeds have eventually been stabilized.
Astrid Lindo and Matt Hoffman
Photo: Sarabek Images
Another local keeper of the faith, Margie McDonald of Wild Blue Farms in Tomales, produces some of the most stunning and delicious heirloom winter squash in our area. They make love to your eyes with unique textures, colors, curves and endearing warts. The Galeux d’Eysines squash is an elegant French heirloom with beautiful salmon-colored skin “blemished” with sugary warts vaguely resembling peanuts. The orange flesh is velvety smooth and beautiful in pies, soups or baked and drizzled with olive oil. Margie’s Marina di Chioggia is blue-green and bumpy with a very enticing turban bottom. The sweet dry flesh is magical for using to make gnocchi instead of potatoes. All squash originated in South America, but this beauty was perfected in a small seaside village on Italy’s Adriatic coast close to Venice and is also known as the “sea pumpkin.”
Photo: Robin Carpenter
As her plants begin to bloom, Margie rises with the sun and ventures into the cool coastal mornings near Tomales Bay to gently hand-pollinate the blossoms from boy flower to girl flower. She then tapes them shut to avoid her Marina and her Galeux engaging in an illicit pollination. She said that she feels connected to the generations of women who have passed down the seeds of these squash and knows that she is now saving the past for the future.
On a larger scale, an inspirational gathering of seedsmen and women happened this fall at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds when over 10,000 people attended the first National Heirloom Exposition. Organized by Baker Creek Seed and the Petaluma Seed Bank, the Exposition was a “World’s Fair” of heirloom foods and speakers included heroes of the organic and non-GMO food movements including Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters. Home gardeners and farmers alike displayed over 3,000 varieties of heirlooms from all over the country. At the close of the gathering, these faithful returned to their communities with new seeds, stories and inspiration, further spreading the good word.
Can heirlooms and seed saving be the salvation of promiscuous pollinators like corn and stop their contamination by GMOs? Well, maybe… I recently discovered work being done on an “organic ready” corn (mocking the Roundup Ready corn produced by Monsanto) by Frank Kutka, a plant breeder and coordinator of the Sustainable Ag Research and Education program at North Dakota State University. Using his own backyard as a test lab, Frank is doing research on a naturally occurring trait in corn—gametophytic incompatibility (GA1S)—that causes the corn to reject and block incoming foreign pollen and can, thus, prevent it from being contaminated by the pollen from GMO corn (which is freely airborne in fields). His work is not funded through the university and was on his own dime until he recently received an $11,500 grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation. GA1S is not a new discovery. According to Kutka, “The trait has been known and used for decades. It was first used in corn bred to produce kernels good for popcorn in the 1950s to prevent cross-pollination.” There are currently three known pollen-blocking traits—GA1S, GA2S and Teosinte Crossing Barrier (TCB).
But, are these the natural solution we have been searching for? Well, not so fast—there are patents issued on both the GA1S and TCB traits. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation owns a patent on TCB and Tom Hogemeyer, a corn breeder at Hogemeyer Hybrids, patented the GA1S trait in 2005. Kutka along with other “open source” corn breeders such as Margaret Smith at Cornell University are opposed to the patenting of these traits. They argue these traits have been used openly for decades. Others in the non-GMO hybrid business told me they feel Hogemeyer patented the GA1S trait to prevent Monsanto from doing so. They report that he’s “flexible” and willing to work with non-GMO breeders. A breeder called Blue River Hybrids has already licensed PuraMaize/GA1S from Hogemeyer Hybrids and is releasing three corn hybrids for the 2012 growing season. SK Food International also licensed the GA1S trait from Hogemeyer and is releasing an organic Red Crimson Corn variety for 2012 and claims their test fields experienced no crosspollination. Whether publicly available for seed saving or patented for hybrids, having organic corn that is resistant to cross-pollination from GMO corn is a huge step.
Seed Saving isn’t just a mitigation against the onslaught of GMOs. It’s also key to surviving climate change. In a secluded spot off Horseshoe Hill Road in Bolinas, Peter Martinelli’s Fresh Run Farm produces collards, kale, arugula, squash and other crops that are stronger, healthier and smarter than your average vegetable. Seed saving from year to year creates plants uniquely suited to his farm’s locale. With respect to arming himself and his farm against climate change, he already takes note of which seeds worked best during certain types of growing seasons, recording comments such as “great arugula during a cool, wet spring” or “the arugula that came well during the hot spell in August.” This enables farmers or gardeners to save the seeds that will work best with changes that are occurring their area. As Peter explains it, “It’s a different approach; instead of warfare against nature, we’re in partnership.”
Can biotechnology be used in a way that respects nature, empowers farmers and creates healthy partnerships from seed to farmer to food producer to consumer? Dr. John Schillinger and his company, eMerge Genetics, is making that happen. Schillinger is a 73-year-old research scientist who worked for Asgrow Seeds, which was bought by Monsanta in 1996. His team worked on the first Roundup Ready soy. He retired in 1998 and struck out on his own to start eMerge Genetics. There, he utilizes biotechnology to do research and test samples, but works with traditional breeding methods to create quality non-GMO seeds (specializing in non-GMO soy).
His company also matches farmers with end producers who want to use non-GMO soy, like specialty tofu makers. This gives the farmers an option to grow non-GMO plants and get out of the commodities pricing trap. Schillinger points out that there’s a worldwide demand for non-GMO soy. The majority of European countries don’t want GMO soy for food or feed. Regulations in Japan’s and Korea are very strict on keeping GMO soy out of their food supply. In the fall of 2010, Brazil launched a program to move away from growing GMO soy, based on the increased demand for non-GMO soy from Europe and Asia. Schillinger also sees the demand in America increasing as the public becomes aware of the existence of GMOs and demands labeling.
“Remember, the seeds are the story carriers. They are the messengers from the past and our hope for the future. They preceded us and assisted us when Homo sapiens evolved as part of this planet.” Words of wisdom from another hero in this story, Claire Hope Cummings. An environmental lawyer, journalist and author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press, 2008), Claire has a deep wisdom about the sacred nature of the relationship between humans and seeds. We’re neighbors and comrades and both feel despair at times. We speak of recent activist gatherings in our area—Bioneers, Justice Begins With Seeds, the Marin GMO Symposium—but primarily we revel in her lettuce seed endeavor. She’s enamored with allowing her lettuce to get “ugly” and go to seed. The tiny flowers, full of thousands of seeds, seem like bursting stars to her. In life and decay and “going to seed,” nature is generous. Nature invites us to be a part of her rather than apart from her. We laugh together as “seed sisters,” knowing our ages bring us closer to the time that we, ourselves, will “go to seed,” as we willingly plant our stories of hope for new generations.
Robin Carpenter is a freelance writer who grew up in Ragg Swamp on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, where she learned the finer points of storytelling and food in a land rich with rituals, myths and well-marbled alligators. She now lives in West Marin and can be reached at email@example.com.
Lettuce gone to seed.
Photo: Claire Cummings
Over the recent months, we are often been asked what the difference between heirlooms and hybrids. The answer is quite simple and straight forward. Heirloom traditionally means that the seed variety has been bred for its desirable traits, superior taste and vigor, having been passed down from generation to generation. The common timeframe for a seed to be considered heirloom is usually 50 years and represents that it is an open pollinated cultivar, not hybrid or genetically modified. Heirlooms are, in essence, a treasure, as they are packed with genetic information. The ritualistic tradition of seed saving, that has been occurring in our civilization for millennia, was developed using heirloom, open pollinated seeds. Many folks are familiar with the term open pollinated, but are not sure what it represents. In short, open pollinated varieties are non-hybrids and are originated from two open pollinated parents that will create an offspring similar to the parent plant with desired characteristics. Open pollinated seeds produce offspring that are true-to-type and are pollinated by the wind, insects, birds or other natural ways, they naturally adapt to your local micro climate, your soil and to you, hybrid seeds do not, as they are static. Open pollinated seeds are not hybrids or are genetically modified.
Heirloom vegetables have been relatively new to the average consumer as of the past 10 – 20 years, but have been an integral in creating the global food heritage we know of today. Heirlooms are generally characteristic of their unique appearance, outstanding flavor and texture and of course a compelling history. Many people are surprised to learn that there are thousands of heirloom varieties unknown to the public and many of them disappearing.
So why are treasured heirloom varieties disappearing? Currently, 75% of the global seed market is governed by 10 companies, uniformity, mass production, perishability and transportation are essential in their business model. These represent some of the many characteristics of heirlooms, from their quirky appearance, to their delicate nature and of course their inability to be mass-produced. The reality is that it took our ancestors 10,000 years to establish the array of foods that are available to us, a mere 100 years we had 96% more varieties to choose from. So why are heirlooms so much better? They conserve the genetic diversity of crops, preserve history and culture, promote bio-diversity and strengthen our eco-system through building soil and creating disease/pest resistant and drought tolerant seeds.
The graph to the left gives an amazingly stark contrast to what has happened in our food system over such a short period of time and the sparse variety that we are left to choose from. The empowering part about this is that we are at the neck of the hourglass, that point in history, where we can make the right choices that are going to allow our future generations to continue to enjoy rare and delicious vegetable and fruit varieties.
Farmers markets are a wonderful place to begin to acquaint yourself with what varieties are being grown, but if you truly want to see what is available, seek out heirloom seed catalogs. If you are gardener, consider only growing heirlooms and begin to explore some varieties that you may not have ever heard of or even considered, but you can be assisting in the reclamation of many of these treasured seeds. Most of all, save your seeds and share the with others. This knowledge is integral in the art of gardening and needs to be reclaimed. Keep in mind that many of these heirloom vegetables are not organic, do not let that hinder you from purchasing them. All you need to do is grow them our for one season organically, save the seed and you technically have an organic seed! Another wonderful way to support the genetic diversity in our food system is by supporting your local farmers market and/or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), both support small-scale farms and your local economy. Not sure where to find those near you? Check out Local Harvest.
There has been much talk about hybrids lately, both good and bad and ultimately it is a decision that should be made, understanding what that means. Hybrid seeds originate from two different parent plants of the same specie, that were genetically crossed to create the hybrid offspring. Seeds of hybrid varieties can be sterile or commonly fail to breed true to type, usually resulting in plant varieties that you do not know what you are going to get. Hybrids are generally referred to the acronym F1 (means first generation or filial offspring). Either F1 or the word hybrid has to be on the packet or plant to prove that it truly is a hybrid.
Hybrids can be stabilized, which means that the variety can begin to cultivate offspring that are more true to type. Stabilizing or de-hybridization can take about 8 generations of growing it out, until it gets to a point where the offspring are clearly stabilized. A common example is the famous Early Girl hybrid tomato, a now stabilized hybrid that became popular among home gardeners for its characteristics in early fruit ripening. Although it is considered stable, it is still marketed as a hybrid. It would not be conducive for seed companies to change the classification because then gardeners would begin saving their own seeds and opt out from buying that variety year after year.
These modern hybrids have been developed by large corporations to suit their needs and demands, as they have been bred to yield high while compromising hardiness, pest resistance, flavor and quality.
Generally the hybrid market sets a barrier to the re-integration of seed saving for the simple fact that companies make it very difficult to save hybrid seeds and you generally would not want to. It is a market that is also dominated in Asia, making the seeds you purchase, adapted to a very different climate and soil. Keep in mind that Organic seeds can be hybrids, know who you are sourcing your seeds and your starts from.
There is a lot of information available to us and learning about it, makes us better consumers. Here at The Living Seed Company, we believe every gardener should have the right to save their own seeds. Check out our newly created FAQ sheet or frequently asked questions, where we have compiled some of our commonly asked questions on the basis of seed differentiation – enjoy and pass it on!
The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture. – Thomas Jefferson
We just landed back in the West Coast after a two-week jaunt through the Mid West. Commencing our trip, was a stay with the man behind the scenes of Simple Good and Tasty, a wonderful blog about all things local, organic and cool. We were delighted to check out what is hip and happening in Minneapolis – from lake side eateries that tout local fare to late night bowling, all done by foot or bike … of course.
We then made our way to Decora, Iowa, all while cruising through some of the most ferocious storms I have ever seen. At one point, I was convinced we were going to see Dorothy flying through the wind! None the less, we arrived at our destination, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) at Heritage Farm and what a beautiful place welcomed us! We arrived to an intimate meet and greet with delicious food, wonderful folk music and a serious down pour! We were there long enough to register, have a bite, listen to some wonderful folk music and meet another fellow Californian, K. Ruby Blume, co-author of Urban Homesteading. The theme for this year was gathering. A modest yet poignant word that describes what occurred that weekend, while adding homage to the book Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver by Diane Ott Whealy, co-founder of SSE.
After a goodnight rest at our hotel room, we were back on the farm bright and early to start a full day of keynotes, workshops, eating, hay rides, barn dances and of course memorable connections with other seed aficionados. I attended a two-part workshop on dry seed processing with Will Bonsall, one of the major curators of the Seed Savers Exchange collection. A fascinating and very entertaining workshop that involved demonstration and some serious humor with an open style forum, where other seed experts like Matthew Dillon, co-founder of Organic Seed Alliance were able to jump in and offer their brilliance.
One of the highlight keynotes was Woody Tasch of Slow Money, a man who deeply believes that if we believe in something, we should act on it. Tasch is the author and genius behind the concept of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered, borrowing from Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. A poised man with so much passion and engagement that I believe he left leaving the audience with such optimism for the world we are co-creating together. The Slow Money set of principles help put into perspective the importance of acting on what we believe in, while awakening biophilia in the hearts and minds.
Throughout the weekend we beat the high heat and scorching temperatures by submerging ourselves in the gorgeous stream that runs the property of SSE, giving us a sense of how sacred this land truly is! The momentum of the weekend continued to build as we learned, exchanged and connected with other incredible folks doing great work in the world such as Ira Wallace from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and Carol Koury of Sow True Seed, among others.
Sunday morning we awakened with the call of the birds and joined other nature lovers for the 6:30 am Bird and Flower Walk, an amazing opportunity to hike the trails and taste the wild and uncultivated varieties growing within Heritage Farm.
Matthew Dillon began with a preacher’s salutation to begin and honor our last Sunday morning. It was another incredible keynote, taking us through an engaging oral history of seeds, the seed industry and of course his own path and bringing us back to the present, all while offering us a simple token of advice, live simply so others can live. He emphasized our need to see our food industry through the lens of a whole integrated eco-system, working with restorative agriculture, restorative seeds and restorative systems with our solutions laid in regional seed systems, succession, diversity and classical plant breeding.
We wrapped up an incredibly dynamic and powerful weekend in the most fashionable way possible, learning wet-seed processing with Suzanne Ashworth, author of the book Seed to Seed. A book that has been our seed-bible since the inception of our company. Little did we know what we were in store for, Suzanne is a hoot, she had the entire audience laughing the entire lecture! Within minutes she had Matthew as her personal assistant cutting up juicy watermelon and feeding it to the audience, all while teaching us the simple ways to wet processing!
Needless to say, that weekend was so powerful and strengthened our movement and our work as a collective. The seed industry has ebbed and flowed through its various moments in history and today we can all be assured that we are weaving a new pattern in our ever evolving tapestry!
* For the complete album of our trip to Seed Savers Exchange check out our Flickr account.
* We made it to the SSE editor’s letter check it out!
For more information on The Living Seed Company, check out our website.